Sunday, December 20, 2009

John Paul II: Man of History

By Edward Stourton, 325 pages, Mad About Books.

Instead of the standard caricatures of the late pontiff, Stourton aims to present his human side in the attempt to “recapture some of that sense of excitement that rippled round the world when, in the early days of his papacy, Karol Wojtyla became the first pope ever to let us see his humanity.”

Stourton gives us a good introduction to the aggressively anti-Christian secular climate of the past two hundred years. He also describes the excitement of Vatican II and the future John Paul II's participation in it.

In the attempt to humanize the late pope, Stourton offers suggestions that are too ambitious and even simplistic, as in accusing John Paul of rejecting something of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, stating without basis that for John Paul “the point of the concept of 'the People of God' was not so much to create a new and democratic structure within the Church, it was to empower an army of foot soldiers who would fight those everyday battles on the frontline of the war with a hostile ideology.”

The following words also reflect the slightly cynical stance the author takes in order, apparently, to present the pontiff's human side: After the tracheotomy of the last few days of his life, “John Paul communicated more through images than words; but he was a master minter of the wordless symbol, as he had demonstrated in Ali Agca's cell and later at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, and he gave us some truly memorable moments during his final days.”

Yet John Paul II: Man of History is better than most on the pontiff. As a journalist with no particular ax to grind, Stourton examines the controversies of the pontificate with some freshness. Rather than getting caught up in the left-wing / right-wing divide, for instance, he examines the way that these two groups repeatedly misunderstood John Paul II, who never thought in those limited terms. In fact, the book's strength is Stourton's journalistic awareness of the cultural climate of normal people in North America, the U.K. or Germany--those people who could never completely understand the pope. Stourton's description of liberal Catholics is refreshingly honest: “The symbols of the new Church were 'the American nuns in shorts and T-shirt with a guitar slung over one shoulder and a book on Eastern meditation in the other hand; the 'just call me Kevin' sort of priest who was not sure what he believed about key doctrines but was certain that he had to be 'with it' wherever 'it' was.”

Stourton seems to be a little on edge towards everyone, rather than only towards the late Pope. That's actually a step forward.

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